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Looking For Design Freshness

As MMW goes online, the Intermot motorcycle show winds up and already the media are reporting leaks for upcoming EICMA.  It is show season, and that means its time for excited speculation amongst designers and engineers about what new and fantastic hardware will their rivals unleash on the world.  

New technology and emerging trends in styling are normally hotly anticipated at this time of year, but with two years of disappointing shows, lack of genuinely new models and the ongoing financial troubles, it seems like motorcycle design is in a deep rut, with almost nothing even remotely engaging being revealed for 2011.  

Legacy brands like BMW, Triumph and KTM all have completely new bikes in the top end of the market, but styling is derivative and anodyne.  The new speed Speed Triple, BMW K1600GT, and Duke 125 appear like mild makeovers of other models, despite being completely new.  The much hyped Tiger 800 adventure model is less flatteringly a copy of BMW’s winning F800GS.  Of course adventure-touring bikes are a hot segment that every OEM is trying to get into, but a company with as much original design material as Triumph really should have done something more.  Besides, where is the wisdom is imitating the brand that defined the genre?  

Even the Italians, so often described as the purveyors of style above all else, have released little in the way of innovative styling.  Ducati’s Multistrada, while technically brilliant, is not pretty.  Launched in a series of teases over a long period, the controversial styling had sunken in somewhat prior to its public testing.  No one questions that it is an original design, and one that attracts as much attention as the stunning technology and specification.  Equally, only praise has been heaped on its fantastic performance and initial sales seem to confirm that it will be a success for the brand.  But serious criticisms have been leveled at the ungracious twin-nostril nose, bulbous, plasticky flanks and fuel tank whose shape digs into one’s stomach.  In any case, it too represents derivative body styling, borrowing cues from both the outgoing Multistrada and most other adventure bikes.  Viewed from the rear, or painted a colour other than red, no one could distinguish the seat/tail from a Kawasaki Versys, or a BMW F800.

The Japanese OEMs have done even less.  To call Suzuki’s new GSX-R new is like calling MV Agusta’s aged Brutale new because of invisible specification changes, something that manufacturer has done for a decade.  Suzuki is not alone in the drought of new design influence, but it is perhaps the most surprising.  Until 2008, they more than the other big four pushed ahead with a glut of fantastic concept models, from the inline 6 cylinder Katana, to the fuel cell powered Crosscage.  Of course the street production machinery was diluted, but a consistent, and competent design language based on the unmistakeable GSX-R style was everywhere.  This year’s product catalogue is stylistically weak.  Even the naked GSR750 looks like it could have been a 2007 model, with nothing new in proportion, technology or detail design.

Similarly, Kawasaki’s ZX-10, while perhaps mildly shocking in proportion and performance, leave no lasting visual impression over its competitors.  As noted by other publications and in forums, the repetition among 1000cc superbikes has become a joke among enthusiasts, with colour and minor mechanical design details often the main distinguishing feature.

Will EICMA reveal some exciting design?  It is doubtful that the Japanese will bring much to the table, not because they aren’t capable of creating spectacular designs, but because as in past years, they chose to show their cards at Intermot.  Honda has stated that it will have an adventure concept, and Yamaha may reveal some scooters, like a new Majesty, but this is hardly earth-shattering.  Italian industry, the loud promoters of high style and design in the motorcycle industry must come to the rescue if any new and inspirational trend is to emerge for 2011.  Of course, most will expect this to come in the form of Ducati’s new power cruiser (tentatively named Diavel), or MV’s purportedly upcoming F3 700cc middleweight, but must these flamboyant and expensive be the source of good design?

MMW Clinic believes that Italian design may indeed come to the rescue, but not with the traditional Legacy brand names.  Studios like Engines Engineering in Bologna, and Marabese Design near Milan have been working with big Legacy names for decades, but in recent years have spread their talents and services to Asian brands, whose increasingly sophisticated motorcycles have begun flooding western markets.  Indian brands like Mahindra and TVS, and Chinese makes Loncin, Keeway and others have enlisted Italian designers and set up studios in Italy since the early 2000’s.  This, in combination with their financial strength and increasing global sales suggests that if there is to be surprising good industrial design, it will likely come from them.  

Of course, small displacement, entry-level motorcycles do not enjoy lavish attention by traditional western media, nor do they benefit from outrageous performance, exotic materials or historic names like Legacy brands do.  But trends don’t always start from the top, where values tend to be conservative.  The original Vespa was hardly inspirational as a pure machine, nor was it a premium product when launched.  It did, however, define scooter style and inspire a legion of imitators ever since.  As EICMA approaches, MMW Clinic will train its eyes east, and downmarket.  If fresh design trends come this year, it is our prediction that it will come from the lower register of the price and brand equity spectrum.

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